Monthly Archives: September 2010

This Working Life book

Today, using Blurb.com, I completed and ordered a promotional book I put together to gain additional sponsorship for the This Working Life project. (This Working Life is an ongoing documentation of work in photographs sponsored by Jobs Australia). This is it:

In the introduction, I wrote:

The digital data embedded with the photograph on the opposite page shows (photo of painters painting historic building in Hobart) that I released the shutter on this subject at exactly 8:35:12 a.m. on Tuesday 5th of January 2010.

Studying that picture later in the day, it occurred to me that apart from the chemistry of their paint, little had changed in this craft since the subject of their meticulous attention was built almost 200 years ago. The basic elements of skill and co-ordination of hand and eye were exactly the same as when this Georgian shop-front was first built. For the near future at least, these were two craftsmen whose job was unlikely to be overtaken by the digital revolution.

This set me on a train of thought about the changing nature of work and as I pondered this, I decided to direct my energies towards a long-term photographic documentation of modern work in all its aspects.

My working life has now spanned a period of fifty-one years. For forty-eight of those, I’ve pursued the vocation of photographer. When I started out, flash bulbs were about to be replaced by electronic flash. A photographer’s burn calluses on forefinger and thumb from changing hot flash bulbs were still a matter of professional pride.

It’s been nearly ten years since I last loaded a roll of film into a camera. Until around twenty years ago the technology for making photographs had barely changed in the 175 years since it was invented. But then came digital photography and I delighted in the spontaneity and flexibility it brought to my craft. Sentimental nostalgia for the darkroom, or “the good old days” of film is something that still eludes me.

Photographing work for almost half a century, I can recall when ships were unloaded with cargo nets; then came containers, an innovation fiercely resisted by waterside workers who saw their opportunities for a little cargo pilfering evaporating.

My first job was in a bank, at a time when a customer’s account information was still kept on ledger cards. One of the most loathed jobs was updating the interest earned on savings accounts. Here, the highest level of technology employed was the ball-point pen and a mechanical hand-cranked adding machine.

There was a time in the early 1950s when the jobs of parking inspector and lift driver appeared to be the prerogative of disabled war veterans. It was not unusual to see a parking inspector bracing his ticket pad on a peculiarly shiny, tightly leather-gloved, prosthetic hand, while he scribbled. Parking inspectors were invariably male.

Lift operators used to be seated on low stools tucked in the corner of the lift next to the controls. All day, as they rode up and down they would repetitiously announce the products or businesses located on each floor. Some did this work with memorable good cheer. Others did it grudgingly, often failing to hide their resentment at their lot. The lift driver’s affliction was more commonly injury to or amputation of the lower limbs.

Also in the 1950s, I remember milk still delivered by horse and cart and dippered from churns into billy-cans. As a nine-year-old, I vividly recall the huge molars of the milkman’s horse clamping onto my left bicep. You don’t quickly forget the excruciating pain of being chewed by a playful Clydesdale.

Later, when my father retired from the navy, as a second job and a small investment, he bought a milk round. The whole family was expected to turn out in the middle of the night to help. Running, crunching through the hard frost on those neat, unfenced, winter Canberra lawns, with a dozen glass bottles of milk in a steel basket hanging from each hand, was fitness training of the highest order. Oh, how we cheered the introduction of milk in cartons.

I once had an uncle who was a Sydney tram driver. His was just a short walk to work. He lived less than 100 metres from the now long gone, tram depot on Military Road in Neutral Bay. Sydney trams, cargo nets, ledger cards, lift drivers, milkmen, their horses and glass bottles, film and flash bulbs; all gone; or in the case of film, lingering but fitfully.

If it is possible to predict anything, it is that change to our working lives will become ever more rapid and dramatic. Predicting the future has always been difficult, but in attempting to anticipate change, it helps if we know where we have been. This is what this book is about.

Rob Walls
Cascades, Tasmania,
September 2010

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Filed under art, Australian, Digital photography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, Stock photography

How I became an outlaw…

Once upon a time, I used to be a photographer who confidently recorded the world around me to generate a reasonable living. Then, all and sundry decided they would either prevent me from taking pictures by imposing regulations, or if they couldn’t do that, they would dip into my wallet to take a piece of the action by imposing permits and fees. They conveniently chose to ignore the fact that my pictures were part of an established symbiotic relationship that enhanced their profitability. Where photo fees are now imposed they are inevitably at a level which, in any sane society, would be equated with banditry.

This year again, because of these regulations, I have become an outlaw. As recently as yesterday, I committed the crime of publishing this photo of the Darling Harbour precinct in Sydney in a Russian consumer magazine.

Sydney's Darling Harbour by night. © Rob Walls

The magazine paid $38US for the privilege of using my photo. The former USSR is notorious for its low publication fees, but this was quite generous by their standards. My share: $22US. Not only did I break the law by marketing this photo, I had at the time of taking it, compounded my crime by shooting from a tripod!

Looking back through my picture sales, this year, I realise I am, so  far, a three-strikes habitual criminal. In January, I licenced for publication (through Alamy), this photo taken on Bondi Beach (no permit/no fee). It appeared in an Italian consumer magazine with a print run of 150,000. I wonder if the number of Italian visitors to Bondi increased this year?

Bondi Beach, late afternoon © Rob Walls

This picture of the Sydney Opera House was used once in a text book in January, and also in a consumer magazine in Taiwan, last March.

Sydney Opera House at sunrise © Rob Walls

Now, these organisations are content to take the profits generated by the tourists attracted to Australia by my photographs and those of other photographers, but they want it both ways. I have absolutely no argument with the authorities about ownership of the space or property. I don’t question the need to impose sensible rules that regulate the work of commercial photographers or film units in these spaces. That’s only common sense. But in every one of these instances, my photography imposed no more interference or obstruction than would any tourist.

What I do question, is the right of government to inhibit my freedom of expression…and their assumption that they own and can charge me for using the light reflected from these objects.

Footnote: These publications earned $US276.82. My share after commission: $US167.29. This is less than the Waverley Council would charge for one hour of photography on Bondi Beach ($150 application fee, $75 an hour).

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Don’t forget: photograph their hands!

The work-worn hands and tattooed arms of ship's engineer, George Currie. © Rob Walls 2010

As a very young photographer working on London’s Fleet Street in the 60s, I was lucky enough to be engaged as a retained freelancer to United Press International. It was at a time when colour supplements were burgeoning and because I had more experience shooting colour than the staffers, I began to pull regular feature assignments targeted to this new market.

Charlie Cowan, UPI’s features editor was a hard task master. No matter what you laid out on the light-box, he always seemed to be able to find some gap in your picture story; something you hadn’t thought to photograph. His eye and his judgment were superb and I made it a personal challenge to produce stories that he could not find fault with. It would be the rare occasion when he was totally satisfied. I was very lucky to have Charlie as my mentor.

After one story briefing, just as I was about to set out on the shoot, he called from his office, “…and don’t forget to photograph their hands!” Sometimes, when I threw a set of pictures up on the light-box, Charlie would say “but, you didn’t photograph their hands!”. He drummed this mantra into me until it became second nature for me to include a picture of someone’s hands.

He was right, of course. You can tell a lot about someone from their hands…and a picture of hands is always a useful image for a layout artist to break the visual rhythm of a story about a person, while still adding information about the subject.

A few weeks ago, it was with Charlie’s mantra still echoing in my ears, that after photographing Scots-born, ship’s engineer, George Currie for my documentation of work (This Working Life), I went back to photograph his work-worn hands against the background of his welding scorched sweater. I told him the story of Charlie Cowan and his advice to me as a young photographer. As I finished my explanation, George pushed up his sleeves, saying in his broad accent, “This’ud be whut ye want, then.”

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Filed under Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls